Working With Death


Everyone dies, but everyone deals with this fact differently. Employees who deal with death as part of their job can face it daily. Miners, Nurses, Doctors, Fire Fighters, Morticians, Police, Psychologists and those working in the Military jump to mind.

Not only do workers in some of these occupations face danger themselves, they are also exposed to the dead or dying as part of their work.

Luckily, there are ways for workers in these professions cope with death, especially through open dialogue and self-management.

Employees grapple with many psychological challenges when working with death and dying

Being exposed to death at work reminds workers of their own mortality. Psychologists call it “mortality salience” and is the recognition and realization we all are going to die.

Some can reflect on their own eventual death and cope with that fact, while others can experience a lot of anxiety when they think about dying. This is called “Death Anxiety”, and workers in these occupations face it at some point during their careers.

How do employees experience death anxiety in these types of jobs?

Most experience it to some degree during their careers and it’s not the same as “Generalized Anxiety”. Generalized Anxiety is pervasive nervousness, apprehension and worry, and it differs from Post Traumatic Stress, when workers have had their lives somehow threatened at work. Death Anxiety is more like a personal trait.

It’s experienced as having unpleasant feelings associated with knowing we die, and the degree to which this concerns workers depends on who they are as people. As well, older employees tend to report less death anxiety than younger employees.

What are the effects of Death Anxiety on employees?

If a worker is high in Death Anxiety they may experience negative thoughts about death frequently. When they try to suppress or avoid the unpleasant thoughts, they risk draining their coping resources. Living every day with negative thoughts about death and working at a demanding and dangerous job can take a toll. If a worker is unable to recover adequately by having enough rest, down-time away from work, or some restorative vacation time, they can burn out.

If Death Anxiety is high, workers can also find themselves disengaging at work, and if they become disengaged and burnt-out, some will cope by being absent.

There are many triggers for death anxiety

It can occur when workers are cued rather than triggered. Cues are like reminders that attract attention and shape mindsets. In many occupations, mortality cues are frequent. If you work landscaping a cemetery, the gravestones can serve as mortality cues, for instance.

For some, working in a retirement home can become a cue. Witnessing death or injury are more obvious ones. These might not be experienced as traumatic events however, as is the case for palliative care health professionals. A palliative care nurse told me once that being with her patients at the end of their lives, was very special. It made her appreciate her own life at a completely different level. So, death anxiety is healthy in some ways. It can enhance the richness of life, but it becomes an issue if workers have frequent negative thoughts about death.

A first responder I met with had seen and handled a lot of deadly situations and death. He didn’t find it particularly traumatic but it was very stressful. Over time though, he noticed he was bothered by thoughts about his own eventual death. It started to affect his concentration at work and he felt his performance was slipping.

Some workers suffer more from Death Anxiety than others

Employees high in Death Anxiety are more sensitive to the mortality cues around them. Many can be surprised when seemingly small things bring on thoughts about dying, like seeing a typical piece of equipment they use everyday, or a scene in a movie when they are trying to relax.

The cue leads to the perception there is a threat to their well-being and this in turn creates a desire to supress the negative thoughts, which requires a lot of emotional energy. So, with no rest on off hours due to cues, workers feel overwhelmed and unable to cope at work.

How can workers with high death anxiety cope if they work in a death-facing occupation?

Recent research on Death Anxiety has been conducted on nurses and firefighters. It notes programs trying to reduce Death Anxiety through education have not been too successful. So, one-off training programs, if they are conducted, can be replaced by ongoing conversations about working with and around death and dying and staff attitudes towards it, including death anxiety and mortality cues as part of self-care conversations with staff can help.

And remember, different workers have different thresholds for handling reminders of their own mortality at different points in their careers.

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